An Institution out of Control

Jun 14, 2017 |  Glynn Custred

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An Institution out of Control

Jun 14, 2017 | 

Glynn Custred

NAS member Glynn Custred, professor emeritus of anthropology at California State University East Bay, has written a six-part reflection on the anti-free-speech movement at the University of California Berkeley. His essay combines his conversations with Berkeley students with his wide-ranging knowledge of the historical and political contexts of Berkeley’s February 2017 riot. 

The Administration of the University Of California

The University of California, Berkeley denies free speech to selected individuals and groups by deferring to left-wing terror tactics. As a corollary, the university administration has encouraged lawlessness that endangers both individuals and public property. Furthermore, by permitting the metastasizing politicization of the university, the University has both violated its fiduciary responsibility to the taxpaying citizens of California and betrayed its mission as an institution of higher education.

To put the violation of fiscal responsibility in perspective, let’s go back to a case at UC Davis in 2011. Students staged a sit-down protest on campus to protest a hike in fees. When the campus police ordered them to move, they refused to do so. Instead of carrying the protestors away, as has been done in the past, one officer used pepper spray to disperse the crowd. A recording of the incident went viral over the internet, which caused an image problem for the university. To counter the negative effects, Chancellor Linda Katchi used public money to hire a Maryland public relations firm to help scrub the internet of references to the protest. 

This by itself raised ethical questions. An investigation conducted by Melinda Haag, former United States Attorney for San Francisco, uncovered further irregularities, which led UC president Janet Napolitano to describe the chancellor’s administration as “deeply flawed.” It showed “poor judgment”, she said, and “violated multiple university policies, misled, even lied to, superiors, the public and the media.” Katchi offered her resignation, which Napolitano immediately accepted.

At the same time as the free speech and violence issues erupted, a series of audits had uncovered poor judgment in Napolitano’s own office. In 2017, Assemblymen Phil Ting (D-San Francisco, chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee) and Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) called for another audit, this time over concerns about increased university spending and rising tuition and fees. Elaine Howle conducted the audit and released it two days before the scheduled demonstration in Martin Luther King Jr. Park. The audit showed that Janet Napolitano’s office used poor judgment and had violated ethical standards. It had also misled the public, the media, and her superiors at the UC Board of Regents. The investigation further revealed mismanagement, waste, and a cover up. State legislators proclaimed their ire in a two-hour grilling of Napolitano the following week.

While the UC system struggled with a $150 million deficit, Napolitano’s office had spent lavishly on perks such as expensive parties. It had also increased spending on cell phones, iPads, and other such devices. Her administration also paid its bloated staff higher salaries than those of their counterparts in the California State University system and the state government. At the same time, Napolitano’s office had been calling for yet another hike in tuition and fees—which had doubled since 2006-2007. Moreover, the president’s office had amassed a hidden slush fund of $175 million.

California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, who also sits on the UC Board of Regents, had said that Trump’s threat to withhold federal funds from the university “is asinine” and “showed zero awareness of the real-world,” and that to do so “would only create more innocent victims [the students] and more Trump carnage.” But, then, what had Napolitano and her administration done to students when they spent lavishly and hid money for their own use while raising student tuitions and fees? Newsom, of course, deplored the situation uncovered by the audit, saying that it was “outrageous.” But what else could he say? He also treated Napolitano with deference, blaming the situation not on her but on the faceless bureaucracy. “I remain a supporter of Janet’s and her office,” he concluded. “I still believe in her.” He was still confident, he said, that she “has the political skills to smooth things over with the legislature. The fact that she hasn’t, doesn’t mean that she won’t and can’t.” Newsom found a (nameless) scapegoat, while closing party ranks in defense of his fellow Democrat.

Even more serious than hidden funds, excessive salaries, and extravagant perks was the auditor’s conclusion that the “Office of the President intentionally interfered with our audit process,” which prevented “us from drawing valid conclusions.” The auditor had sent confidential surveys to each of the UC campuses to learn more about the system’s finances and expenditures, and in order to determine if there was any duplicate spending. Napolitano’s office appeared to have tampered with the results. Republican Assemblyman Dante Acosta said, “Often, where there’s smoke there’s fire. Here I think we might have a mushroom cloud.”  And indeed there was, for emails reported by the San Francisco Chronicle revealed that administrators at UC Santa Cruz, UC San Diego, and UC Irvine had removed statements critical of Napolitano and her staff at the direction of Napolitano’s office. Furthermore, her office had arranged a system-wide conference call to co-ordinate responses among campuses, when the surveys were supposed to have been independent and confidential.

Howle said that this “tampering was outrageous and unbelievable,” while Ting compared Napolitano’s office’s actions to those of a professor who “magically … changes the grade [of a failing student] and passes the student.” When some lawmakers at the hearing asked Howle about the possibility of criminal violations, she replied that she didn’t know, because she wasn’t an attorney, but that in her seventeen years as auditor she hadn’t seen “interference of this kind.”  Ting, along other Democratic Assembly members, plans to introduce a bill in the Legislature to create penalties for obstructing the state’s auditor. Some Republican legislators have called for a subpoena of documents from the president’s office, while Democrats want stricter controls over how state money is spent by the university.

Democratic Speaker of the Assembly Anthony Rendon told the Los Angeles Times that he is “frustrated with the lack of communication coming out of the office of the president.” Governor Jerry Brown said that the state would withhold $50 million dollars from the university until it reduces its spending, and Democratic Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva called on Napolitano to resign, saying, “President Napolitano no longer engenders the public trust required to perform her duties.” An ironic echo of what Napolitano herself had demanded of UC Davis Chancellor Katchi.

Assemblyman Ting also said that “the fact that the president already tampered with a state audit is very serious,” and that the Board of Regents should look into the matter. Assemblyman Acosta said of the regents that he is “a little shocked at how out of touch they have been,” for it is their duty to oversee the operations of the sprawling UC system. But Monaca Lozano, chair of the Board of Regents, like Lieutenant Governor Newsom, defended Napolitano. Lozano said that she stands with the president, who has harnessed the university’s size and brain power to take on “great social challenges.” Lozano did not elaborate on what that means, or on why educational and financial challenges seem to take second place in Napolitano’s administration. Lozano instead said that, “we have confidence in [the president’s] leadership,” and called Napolitano “a capable and effective leader.”

What will happen now? Napolitano will probably continue in office. Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist, now at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California, told the East Bay News Group that it is understandable why people would want to avoid open conflict with Napolitano. “She might be wounded at the moment,” he said, but “she’s going to recover, and she probably has a long memory, so there’s not much incentive for anyone to get in her dog house.”

In the light of all this uncomfortable publicity, the Board of Regents agreed to hire an outside consultant to investigate interference in the audit. This issue is too big for them to ignore—although they continue to disregard the decline in UC student performance and the increasing politicization of the university.

The UC Board of Regents

The University of California holds a prominent and privileged place within the three-tiered system of public higher education in California, a system of mass higher education that has been described as a model for the world. At its base are community colleges that are conveniently located and affordable, offering courses required for the first two years for the bachelor’s degree, as well as technical and vocational courses of study. The next level is the California State University (CSU) system, which offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the liberal arts, the sciences, business, teacher training, nursing, engineering and other technical specialties. At the pinnacle of the pyramid is the University of California, which offers degrees from the BA to the Ph.D., as well as degrees in law and medicine. UC also carries on high-level scientific research on its ten campuses, as well as in the three laboratories that it supervises.

In 1879 the legislature made UC an autonomous branch of the California government, “equal and co-ordinate with the legislature, the judiciary and the executive,” to be overseen by a Board of Regents whose members are appointed from among the citizens of the state. The board of regents thus functions within the state government in a manner similar to that of the boards of directors in business corporations. The Board’s autonomy was intended to insulate the university from the control of politicians. It is obvious from the results of the state audit that the board has failed to exercise either its fiduciary duty to the taxpayers of California or its obligations to its students. As State Senator Cathleen Galgiani (D-Stockton) said, the Board has been “tone deaf” in its approval of decisions by the administration, such as when it raised the pay of its staff while cutting student services and raising tuition. As a remedy, she has proposed a constitutional amendment that would change the status of UC, and bring it more in line with the relationship that exists between the legislature and the CSU.

The only objection to such a measure is the one that led California to grant UC autonomy in 1879:  weaken the university’s autonomy and it will become vulnerable to political meddling. Yet, as demonstrated at length in the National Association of Scholars’ (NAS) report Crisis in Competence: the Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California (2012). the university has already become steadily politicized: not by meddling politicians, but by its own faculty and administrators.

Crisis in Competence’s lead author was John Ellis, a former dean of Graduate Studies and Research at UC Santa Cruz, and then president of the California Association of Scholars, the California state affiliate of the NAS. Crisis notes the fall in measurable skills among students, along with reduced study-hours by students and reduced academic expectations by the faculty. Crisis stated that as the general public becomes increasingly aware of that slippage, it will recognize that college increasing lacks the capacity to improve reading, writing, or reasoning skills much less to provide the general knowledge necessary for success. Adding insult to injury, this collapse of UC’s academic quality has been accompanied by ever-rising tuition. 

Crisis then states that the collapse of college education in California has come about in large part as a consequence of politicized teaching, which has led to a shift in instruction from how to think to what to think. The report extensively substantiates that claim, and recommends that the University of California take a different direction in its teaching. The report was addressed to the UC Board of Regents, the body responsible for the quality and the reputation of the university.

Rather than placing the points made in the report on the agenda for discussion, Ellis says that the regents were evasive, “ducking and weaving” to avoid the evidence, acting not as watch dogs in the interest of the university and the public, but rather as lap dogs of the administration that they are supposed to oversee. The regents can’t avoid addressing their failure in respect to financial problems and the way the administration has deceived them, but they can and will dance away from the question of politicization and its effects on the educational quality and the reputation of the institution for which they are responsible.                

UC’s ideological conformity, appeasement of leftist violence, bloated administration, left-leaning faculties, political correctness, censorship, and self-serving administration are all connected to one another as part of a general decline of higher education at the University of California. But UC is not alone. As Stephen Hayward puts it, UC is just “a microcosm of an American higher education archipelago of ideological intolerance and detachment from reality,” in which the university “can’t control its spending and won’t control its kooks.”

Image Credit: John Loo.

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